Special report by Jeff Conant, Global Justice Ecology Project, from the streets in Oakland
January 29, Oakland CA – What began as a plan to occupy a vacant city building, with the stated intention of transforming it into a community center, became another in a series of street battles between Oakland police and Occupy supporters that ended with hundreds jailed and the city center under siege.
Hundreds marched from Oscar Grant Plaza at noon on Saturday, becoming thousands as the police and several local sheriffs departments responded rapidly, and with force.
Some 400 people were arrested throughout the day, including several journalists; several Occupiers entered City Hall and burned an American flag; two broadcast media vans were attacked by demonstrators. The Oakland Police Department, even as it faces Federal receivership for its long history of abuse, reacted with teargas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and the first reported appearance of an enormous tank, corralling marchers, and engaging in arbitrary arrests, sometimes with excessive force.
The next night in Oscar Grant Plaza, in the chill outdoors beneath high-rise office buildings, hundreds gathered to hold the biweekly Oakland General Assembly, to debrief, and to support those in jail. There may have been as many opinions about the day’s events as there were people in the plaza.
One supporter said she’d been against Saturday’s plan from the start, and had voted against it.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I think we need to do building takeovers. But this one was poorly planned and badly executed.”
“I’m for diversity of tactics,” she said. “Not futility of tactics.”
The man next to her, not surprisingly, had a different take. Preferring to remain anonymous, he summed up the day’s events as “semi-productive chaos.”
The productive part, he said, hinged on “thousands of people mobilized and freed from patterns of immobility and fear.”
As an attempt to occupy a building and create a community center, he said, “it was a spectacular failure. But we need failures. With every one, we’re learning.”
For this writer, the most poignant assessment had come the night before, around midnight on Saturday, when downtown Oakland was still tense. Police had cordoned off several blocks and surrounded Oscar Grant Plaza, as demonstrators continued to be loaded in buses to Santa Rita County jail, 40 miles away.
There in the nearly empty plaza, a small group of Iraq Veterans Against the War had gathered to keep watch on the police, who stood with helmets and batons along the perimeter. Several of their friends had been swept up in the arrests.
I asked one of the group, an African American woman named Dottie Guy, what had brought her out. She flashed a smile.
“Where else am I going to be?” she said. “I need to be here.”
Dottie had crossed the Bay from her home in San Francisco, but was originally from Virginia. She’d joined the National Guard in 2000, as a way to get to college, she told me.
“After 9-11 happened, I was called up,” she said. “I never expected to go Iraq.”
Dottie served her tour of duty, and by the time she was stateside, she was fed up. Now, together with an apparently growing number of service veterans, she’s a regular supporter of the Occupy movement.
I asked her again if she could clarify what it was that compelled her to join this movement.
“I took an oath to defend and protect the Constitution,” she answered. “They didn’t let me do it in Iraq, so I’m doing it here.”